How Jacob Actually Opened the Door to Reincarnation

By: Hillary Schulman

I believe in reincarnation. I know it’s an atypical Jewish ideal, but I adhere to it nonetheless. Then again, I like to consider reincarnation more like a restoration or rejuvenation of life, so in some ways, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we as Jews actually believe in reincarnation.

Take Jewish baby naming for instance. Reincarnation is present here as parents traditionally name their children after beloved ones who have passed away. The gesture of naming after the deceased serves to honor their beautiful qualities and memorialize their distinctive traits. For example, I was named for my great-grandfather, Harry, a very good man. He was soft-spoken, easy to talk to, kind, and genuinely cared about others. He was well-liked and respected, and my parents wanted to preserve those traits so they honored him by naming me Hillary.

This week’s Parsha is Vayechi, in which Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, to an ailing Jacob’s bedside to be blessed.  A parent’s prayer for a son comes from this very image as the prayer declares, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe…” This is a step towards reincarnation or restoration. We are assumed to be created in God’s image, yet this prayer asks that each son be comparable to Joseph’s sons so their upright characteristics are revived in every Jewish male.

A more modern version of a similar lesson comes from Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, one of my favorite novels:

“You would wind up as a cat, I told her. They don’t need anyone else.

I need you, she replied.

Well, I said. Maybe I’ll come back as catnip.”

Here Picoult reveals a very simple truth: we need one another. We can’t do it alone, nor do we really want to. People need people, and when those we need are no longer with us, we celebrate them in any ways we can. That’s precisely why we’re named after those who have meant the most. It is in this way that we are reincarnated or restored to future generations.  Our work as human beings, but most in particularly as Jews, is to make this world better for the next generation, and we need a community of people who believe the same in order to do so.

Whether or not reincarnation or restoration is “Jewish” isn’t the issue. This revival shows up in various ways every day, both deliberately and unintentionally, whether through the eyes of a newly-named baby or in the work we do. Deep down I think there’s a hope that this renewal does indeed exist so that those who came before us, the very ones who’ve made the world a better place, are able to continue their mission through their namesakes.


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